Commentary: Time for Obama to hit reset button on Latin American ties

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

The announced departure of Arturo Valenzuela, the top U.S. diplomat in charge of Latin American affairs, would be a great opportunity to make much-needed changes in the Obama administration’s Latin America policy.

The timing for resetting U.S. ties with the region couldn’t be better: Valenzuela, who is returning to academia, is scheduled to leave this summer. His successor will have to prepare the VI Summit of the Americas in Colombia next April and the administration will have to start drafting its foreign policy campaign platform for the 2012 elections.

According to congressional and diplomatic sources, among the diplomats who are likely to be offered Valenzuela’s job are William Brownfield, Christy Kenney, Roberta Jacobson and Michael McKinley.

But regardless of who gets the job, Washington should take stock of its standing in Latin America and the Caribbean, and do something about it.

While President Barack Obama is pretty popular in the region, the United States is losing market-share in Latin America, both economically and politically. The figures are staggering.

The share of U.S. exports to the region has dropped from 55 percent of Latin America’s total imports in 2000 to 32 percent of the region’s imports in 2009, says a new report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Meanwhile, China’s trade with the region has soared, the study shows.

The share of U.S. foreign investments in the region has fallen from 25 percent to 17 percent of Latin America’s total foreign investments over the five past years, the ECLAC figures show.

Politically, the Washington-based 34-country Organization of American States and other regional groups with U.S. presence are facing growing competition from new institutions that exclude the United States, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

Tough spot

It is hard to blame the Obama administration for Washington’s diminishing presence in the region. Obama inherited the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s, and has been busy putting out fires in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and northern Africa since he took office.

When I interviewed Obama in March, he came across as much more familiar with — and interested in — Latin American affairs than I expected. In addition to his recent trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, he has traveled to the Caribbean and Mexico.

Obama’s repeated calls for an “equal partnership” with the Hemisphere have helped improve the U.S. image in the region. And his strategy of ignoring Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s daily tirades against the United States is smart, because it denies Chávez an excuse to claim he is a victim of U.S. aggression.

Still, the Obama administration has not produced any grand plan to improve U.S. ties with Latin America.

“There is a perceived lack of strategic vision on the part of the United States vis-à-vis the region,” ECLAC’s recent report says. “The Alliance for Progress, the Initiative for the Americas and the Free Trade Area of the Americas were all ambitious U.S. initiatives for regional cooperation. Today, no equivalent to those initiatives exists.”

My opinion: I agree. The United States needs to jump-start its policy toward the region. It should do what companies do when they are losing market-share: come up with a new product.

Aid for universities

Washington could, for instance, propose a major regional program to help Latin America expand its research and development capabilities, as well as improve its universities.

Currently, only 3 percent of the world’s research and development investments are taking place in Latin America. And there is no Latin American institution among the world’s best 100 universities in any of the three best-known global university rankings. Those are areas in which the United States is still No. 1.

Why not expand Obama’s recently announced plan to increase to 100,000 the number of American students going to Latin American colleges, and vice-versa, by the end of this decade? Why not start an academic program with free internet English classes for tens of millions of Latin Americans? Why not give incentives to U.S. multinationals so that they set up research and development centers in Latin America?

The change of guard at the State Department’s top Latin American job may be Obama’s best — and last — chance to come up with an ambitious plan to help prevent a further loss of U.S. market-share in the region.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

Related stories from McClatchy DC